Difficulty and danger have always been inherent in the mining profession. Miners typically face risks ranging from flying debris to mine collapse, to vehicular incidents.
But as mining operations move toward the future, many offer a new vision. It’s one of partially and fully autonomous mining equipment, programmed to handle some of those difficult and dangerous tasks traditionally handled by people.
Mining automation is a key component of many companies’ digital transformation strategies. It promises improvements to safety, productivity, and reduced labor costs. In a 2020 survey of global mining leaders, 75% said they view this kind of technological disruption as more of an opportunity than a threat, while 36% identified innovation and technological transformation as one of their company’s top two growth strategies.
The former CEO of Australian mining firm BHP, Andrew Mackenzie, has stated that automation could save the industry billions.
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The use of automated equipment in mines is still small. One estimate stated that less than 3% of current mobile mining equipment is autonomous. However, it’s expanding rapidly. Multiple OEMs now offer autonomous equipment, such as hauling trucks, load/haul/dump (LHD) machines and drillers. According to an article published in Mining, Metallurgy & Exploration in July 2020:
As of February 2020, 459 autonomous trucks were accounted for and active in mines around the world.
Caterpillar® has provided more than 239 autonomous trucks to mining operations in several countries globally, including the United States.
Komatsu® has distributed 141 autonomous trucks to mines in several countries, including the U.S. At one mine in Chile, the use of these trucks over 10 years has significantly reduced the frequency of collision, while raising productivity and tire performance.
The industry expected a 32% growth in the use of automated vehicles in 2019-2020, and higher rates are expected for future years.
Other key emerging technologies include:
Auto-tunable robotic loading (ARTL) technology, which uses non-visual sensors to allow an LHD to judge the size and configuration of a rock pile and adjust for excavation. This technology promises to help automated LHDs better operate in low light/dusty conditions.
Automated power crushers that provide greater crush down capacity between primary and secondary crushers.
Automated, electric light rail systems. These may combine features from conveyors, trucks and heavy rail in a single system for hauling bulk materials out of a mine.
Despite the great promise for automated equipment to transform mine operational efficiency, productivity, and safety, challenges do remain.
As pointed out in a 2018 report by McKinsey & Co., investing in technology is only one piece of the puzzle. Mines also need to adapt management and operational systems to realize automation’s potential, while shifting company culture to being one that embraces a more agile organization that can get value from the technology.
Mining has traditionally been difficult and often dangerous work. But new technologies are poised to remove some of the most challenging mining tasks from human hands, creating jobsites that are safer and more productive. Leading OEMs now offer automated mining equipment, including trucks, LHD machines and drillers. While industrywide adoption has been somewhat slow, it’s difficult to imagine a future of mining without these technologies — and others such as artificial intelligence — playing a key role.
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This article was contributed by the Hydraulics Team
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